Find workouts you enjoy — they’re meant to be fun, not a chore. Drop workouts that don’t make you smile at least a little bit.
As part of my series about health and wellness leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Hill Meyer. Karen owns a boutique pop-up fitness studio in Charlotte, NC and uses her past to inspire, motivate, and create an inclusive community for fitness goers of all levels. Karen founded First Wind Fitness in 2015 and is no stranger to adversity. At age 25, Karen was rushed to the hospital when she found her heart beating out of control. Doctors had to stop her heart so that the rhythm could be corrected and after undergoing a procedure to correct the congenital defect that was found in heart, she continued to have problems and was sent back to the cardiologist. Doctors found that Karen suffered from yet another medical condition affecting her heart and she was put on various medications to control her symptoms. After a lifetime of trouble with physical fitness because of her heart health, the medications and the corrective procedure allowed her to finally find her “first wind” in fitness. In 2015, Karen took her new life passion to the next level by opening a boutique studio, First Wind Cycling & Fitness, to help others discover their first winds, too. She aims to inspire her clients to fully integrate fitness into their lifestyles to keep themselves happy and healthy. In addition to her business, Karen has a full-time career in finance and periodically offers donation-based classes that give back to several heart disease focused foundations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
As the founder and owner of First Wind Fitness in Charlotte, NC, I opened the studio doors four years ago to serve this booming North Carolina community and make a difference in people’s lives. While fitness and entrepreneurship are at the center of my life now, it wasn’t always that way.
Growing up, I was unable to work out since I often passed out or felt sick during exercise. One day, at age 25, I was rushed to the hospital as my heart was beating out of control — so much so that doctors had to temporarily stop my heart to bring the rhythm back to normal. It was then doctors discovered several heart conditions that had been misdiagnosed my entire life as asthma or anxiety or simply “being out of shape.” I then underwent a procedure to correct an abnormality in my heart.
A few years after the procedure, I was back at the cardiologist as I was experiencing continued issues during physical activity (blacking out, having chest pains, trouble breathing, etc). I was told I had a condition called Dysautonomia and for a period of time I was instructed not to drive as there was a risk of passing out behind the wheel. So, I started walking to work. After a few months of walking to work, I noticed I wasn’t having as much difficulty breathing for the first time in forever, literally. I started to realize that her heart procedure and medications now allowed my body to do things it had never been able to do before.
I dubbed this my “first wind,” never looked back and decided to launch my own fitness studio three years. I’m a huge proponent of supporting everyone who walks into these classes, no matter their level of exercise and I encourage everyone to take that first step towards a healthy lifestyle, but continually pay attention to your body and what it’s telling you.
Can you share the interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I opened First Wind, I originally was afraid to teach and I thought that I probably couldn’t even do it because of my heart. I quickly learned as a business owner that I needed to do all of the things though, so I hopped on the instructor bike. The interesting part happened after my nerves finally calmed down. I was about 20 minutes into class one day when this strong feeling rushed through my body and I thought “WOW! Am I actually doing this?? Is my body actually riding this bike and I’m actually teaching this class?” It just hit me randomly one day and mid-class, I became overwhelmed with emotions that I was beating the odds. I had to fight back tears for the rest of class.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I would always get to the studio early to get ready for class. I would probably spend an hour preparing before people walked in the door. So, I had plenty of time to get fully prepared… One day though, I prepared as much as I could, but somehow managed to forget to change my shoes for class and by the time I realized it, it was too late. I taught a full cycling class in flip-flops and I don’t think anyone realized it (except for me)!
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
I am! We are working on a whole new model for our business. We are giving up our brick-and-mortar location and partnering up with another local business called “The Space” and transitioning into a pop-up studio. We will be teaching classes during some hours while other amazing instructors running their own businesses teach classes in the same place during other hours. We have flexibility to add and change classes here with the ebbs and flows of our business and based on the preference of our clients. We have some cool opportunities to introduce our clients to other beneficial classes led by other experts. It also makes First Wind more of a lifestyle business for me, so I don’t have things to do 24/7.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My brother has always been a role model for me. When we were in high school, my brother suffered a fall that resulted in doctors identifying an injury he sustained in the past. Turns out, he had broken his neck when he was a kid and no one ever knew. He had to have major surgery and had to wear a halo and series of neck braces for about a year. After all of it, doctors found that the surgery and all of the follow up were totally unsuccessful. He would never play contact sports again and this was a kid who played every sport known to man and even received his Varsity letter jacket for wrestling in the 7th grade. It was devastating, but he was able to pick up the pieces and move on finding other ways to stay active and live a very fulfilling life. He has encouraged me through every step of my journey and I always tell people that I am able to handle my situation better because of the way he handled his.
Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that will help people feel great?
1. Move your body every single day.
2. We all have something we have overcome. Take time to appreciate the ways you are becoming stronger all the time. Never forget how far you’ve come.
3. Find workouts you enjoy — they’re meant to be fun, not a chore. Drop workouts that don’t make you smile at least a little bit.
Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?
Bossypants was one of the first books I read that I actually enjoyed. It was also probably the first book I read cover to cover. At the time, I was on a pretty clear path in life with a lucrative career in finance and that was that. When I read Tina Fey’s book, I realized that you can do more than one thing at a time while also being grounded and funny. That wasn’t really a thought I had before then. I thought you chose one thing and you stuck with it. Several years later, you’d find me still managing my career in finance, but also running my business on the side, and managing my chaotic 3 rescue animal household. I feel like Bossypants made me feel like I wasn’t alone in wanting to have it all.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Honestly, doing what I’m doing now! It’s so important to find a group of like-minded people who lift you up, encourage you and support you, whether you’re working out or altering your diet to include healthier options. I started First Wind Fitness because I wanted to provide that place of comfort, support and be a resource to anyone who walks through the doors. When so many people out there are really just getting started in a new workout or can’t quite figure out how to cook healthy when they’re so busy, I wanted to hire a group of people who could be resources to our clients and community.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’ve been able to do some really cool things with non-profits in our area and in other places in the country. We don’t just give money. We make our involvement in charities a big deal. We bring awareness to the cause and to the groups we work with making sure people understand the work they are doing and how we all in some way relate back to that cause. Working with wellness-based organizations like the American Heart Association or The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and bringing them into our space allows us to in tandem bring my story to people all together emphasizing to everyone who comes through our doors the importance of taking care of themselves and the importance of seeing a doctor if they aren’t feeling quite right. We also ran a program to bring adoptable dogs into the studio in honor of my dog, Lika, that I lost after opening the studio. I adopted Lika after learning that she had a similar heart condition to mine and was even on the same medication. We had at least 7 dogs adopted by friends and family of First Wind! It’s one of my proudest accomplishments.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Bad things happen to good people in good times and bad and you have to be ready for life to happen even when you are in the midst of a great adventure like opening your own business. Early on, my family had to overcome some pretty heavy struggles and I had to balance everything. We all lifted each other up and I was lucky enough to have picked a good boyfriend (now husband) who helped me keep it all going.
2. Building a business is harder than you think and harder than anyone says. You learn about yourself, learn a lot about business and life than you could doing anything else. You also learn that not all friendships last forever and that’s ok. All of the changes are worth it in the end.
3. Being willing to overcome obstacles is how you survive.
4. Letting people in and showing people honestly who you are is important. Personal branding to me means being yourself and letting people know who you are with consistency. Personal branding is who you are, how you relate to others and why who you are makes a difference. Carry that message through everything you do. It’s all about connecting and having a consistent message. If people know who you truly are, they will relate to you, and they will stick around to be a part of what you do.
5. It’s hard to balance work and life as a woman! I learned to take things are they come and not fill up all of my time. Holding onto white space in your calendar is super important. Time with my husband, my dog, and my cat are the most important things in the world to me and I had to learn how to prioritize and make space for what really matters.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Strength is what we gain from the madness we survive.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’ve got to go back to Tina Fey because she makes it all happen. I read Bossypants when it was published and related so much to all of the things she wanted and made happen. Tina has it all and it’s not because she sat around and waited for someone to call on her. She made decisions, went out and worked for the things she wanted and made them happen. She was a big inspiration to me and I’m in awe of how she juggles all of the things in life.
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Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.